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Oct 24 / Greg Pearl

Beyond “Write how you talk”: Finding your voice as a writer

One of the most common questions we receive as we evaluate writers at B/R is: “What’s the best way to find your own voice while writing for an online audience?”

It’s a great question, especially because our evaluations don’t take into consideration subjective factors such as passion, humor and the uniqueness of your voice. We leave those judgments to assignment editors, who know your work much more intimately than an evaluator does. But what happens when a writer’s not familiar with his or her own voice? Is it simply a matter of transferring your personality to the page?

The New Yorker’s Louis Menand doesn’t think so.

Toward the end of his 2004 review of the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” he writes, “There are writers loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the eye, and can’t seem to finish a sentence.”

Menand makes a convincing (if not obvious) case that speech and writing are very different animals. Speech is at its most natural-sounding when it’s off the cuff, affected by subtle facial and bodily movements as well as vocal inflection. But it often takes unnerving amounts of trial and error to achieve anything near the same quality in your text.

And while a common gobbet of wisdom passed among writers—including F. Scott Fitzgerald—is to “write for the ear,” Menand points out that this technique won’t necessarily help you cultivate your voice:

Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.

In other words, conversational writing involves much more effort and reflection than does having an actual conversation. Thinking your writing has a “voice” is misleading if you expect it to come as spontaneously as the words from your mouth. Perhaps we should start calling it one’s authorial “reputation” instead.

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Greg Pearl is Bleacher Report’s Writer Evaluation Coordinator. Follow him on Twitter @greg_pearl.

  • Will Carroll

    Greg – really interesting piece. I find myself hearing writers that I know inside my head when I read their stuff and to me, that usually holds true. Certainly, we all can edit what we write more than what we speak more readily, which is why the French coined l’esprit d’escalier. We’ve all had that moment where we think of the perfect phrase, the witty comeback, that line you should have said, but moments or even days later. James White once said that writing was just collecting all those things you wish you’d said.

    • Greg Pearl

      Thanks much for the read, Will, and for the tidbit from White. I know I’ve always been envious of the spontaneous types in social scenes. Thinking like this, though, from Menand and White gives me hope for deliberate thinkers everywhere to have the last laugh—or at least the last word.